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Legacy in the Vanguard

After Years of Innovation, Molson Coors Has the Right Brands, Right Now

By: Jerard Fagerberg

Despite industry headwinds, Molson Coors is posting gains while others strive to be flat. Last year Molson Coors held 25.3% of the domestic beer market. Heady Times reviews the insights, innovations, and opportunities inspired by CEO Gavin Hattersley’s team which made 2024 a banner year for this storied brand.

Northeast Region Vice President Chris Gick says, “Molson Coors has the right brands and plans in place, and with the industry’s best distributor network on our side, we’re continuing our strong sales in 2024 and beyond.”

Recent headlines haven’t been kind to big beer.

As millennials mature and Generations Z and Alpha attain LDA status, traditional alcoholic drinks have lost cachet and share of stomach. Unusual flavors and beverages completely new to the beer aisle now battle with legacy brands for their share of limited shelf space.

Something has changed.

And yet, Molson Coors continues to grow, a trend that’s lasted six years now. Molson Coors has gained the most shelf space at retail, with Coors Banquet up 20%, according to the company. That growth is across the board: in every region, every channel, and with every major customer group.

How did the country’s second largest beer company flourish? What has taken Molson Coors from quaint legacy brewer to one in the vanguard of consumer taste and flavor innovation?

Chris Gick, Molson Coors Northeast Region Vice President, traces the success back to a 2019 “pivot” championed by CEO Hattersley known within the company as “the revitalization plan.” Gick has witnessed firsthand success after success since Hattersley changed the company’s direction. He recognizes that it’s been “a year of structural change,” but from his perspective, this is precisely what Molson Coors has prepared for.

Gick explains, “Molson Coors has been on a steady upward trajectory over the past several years following the launch of our revitalization plan. We’ve premiumized our portfolio and expanded beyond beer. The results speak for themselves.

Molson Coors is the number 1 gainer in retail, with the Coors Banquet brand up 20% according to internal estimates.

Purpose Drives Purchase

Molson Coors calls this new strategy “Purpose Drives Purchase.” It’s an evolution of classic marketing, where you focus on simple-but-universal concepts to leverage the right product at the right moment. It’s about precision, but without the compromise of mass appeal.

Molson Coors’ Purpose Drives Purchase approach is based on four key insites: (1) choice is driven by occasion, (2) all segments play a role, (3) the core matters, and (4) the right innovation attracts customers.

Investing more money behind these insights has propelled products like Coors Light, Coors Banquet, Miller Lite, and Blue Moon into consumers’ hands. And success has been most pronounced where Molson Coors plays up the nostalgia factor, reminding consumers that these brands – as dependable as ever – are still relevant and delicious.

“They’re iconic brands with huge badge value, boosted by marketing campaigns that resonate across generations for their nostalgia and humor,” Gick says. “The increased shelf space is a result of retailers recognizing we have powerful brands that consumers demand, and they’re making more room for Molson Coors brands on the floor and in the cooler.”

Miller Lite has brought back their “All- Stars” campaign, putting their beer in the hands of former professional athletes.

Coors Light returned to Super Bowl advertising after three decades by revitalizing their iconic early-aughts “Chill Train” ad, updating the concept with a slow-motion treatment that brought Coors drinkers into the ad itself using CGI and augmented reality. Miller Lite brought back their more recent “All-Stars” campaign, putting their beer in the hands of former professional athletes like J.J. Watt, Mia Hamm, David Ortiz, Jorge Posada, and Reggie Miller. Meanwhile, Coors Banquet is still coasting off its inextricable association with hit show Yellowstone, en route to a projected 20% increase in distribution this year.

All these campaigns have been translated into eye-catching displays in grocery and convenience stores, where Molson Coors has gained both sales and shelf space.

Coors Light returned to Super Bowl advertising after three decades with a revitalized “Chill Train” ad, updating the concept with a slow-motion treatment that brought Coors drinkers into the ad itself using CGI and augmented reality.

Premium beer sales are improving in off-premise channels as well, so it made sense for Molson Coors to double down and make sure their beer stays top of mind with highly visible displays. Coors Light is now the number one brand in grocery by volume. And Miller Lite now outsells Bud Light, according to Russell Fowler, Senior Manager of Customer Solutions at Molson Coors.

“The right displays play an important role in driving category growth,” Fowler said in early April. “They create awareness for the category and that can drive real-time purchasing decisions, and that generates incremental revenue.”

A New Beginning for Blue Moon

Gick is optimistic that Blue Moon can follow the trajectory of Molson Coors’ core brands by capitalizing on Americans’ desire for light, easy-drinking beer like Blue Moon. He called the brand “an on-premise powerhouse,” which is remarkable since the off-premise has not been legacy beers best channel. Blue Moon Belgian White is still the number one craft in Circana-tracked channels and what you see now is a revitalized Molson Coors.

The company updated the brands packaging and renamed Blue Moon LightSky to Blue Moon Light, while also addressing consumer demand for flavorful nonalcoholic beer with Blue Moon’s zero-proof take on Belgian White, which was released in December. The company expects to see a Blue Moon renaissance this summer.

“Increased shelf space is a result of retailers recognizing we have powerful brands that consumers demand, and they’re making more room for Molson Coors brands on the floor and in the cooler.”

— CHRIS GICK, Molson Coors Northeast Region Vice President

Generational Demand

While beer sales have been flat across the board, beyond beer sales are soaring. In 2023, spirits-based RTD sales increased 26.8% to $2.8 billion, led by High Noon and BuzzBallz. At the same time, flavored malt beverage sales are up 20.6% in NIQ-tracked channels, driven by hard teas and lemonades. The success is not only driving consumers away from beer, but it’s also creating scads of new drinks to try to capitalize on the trend.

When Molson Coors Brewing Company changed their name to Molson Coors Beverage Company during that 2019 shakeup, it signaled the brand’s readiness to meet the diversified palates of rising legal drinking age (LDA) drinkers. Molson Coors has benefited from releasing spiked versions of well-known beverages like Arnold Palmer Iced Tea and Topo Chico, but it’s the Simply Spiked Lemonade line that’s been the star of the beyond beer portfolio.

Eye-grabbing displays in grocery and convenience have been a huge boon to shelf space gains and upward trending sales for Molson Coors.

One of the main gainers of shelf space for Molson Coors, Simply Spiked continues to meet consumers at the intersection of nostalgia and innovation. Growing sales of Spiked Lemonade and Peach led to the release of Spiked Limeade in January. Speaking at the 2024 Beer, Wine & Spirits Summit in January, Molson Coors Chief Marketing Officer Sofia Colucci summarized how Molson Coors is using products like Simply Spiked to attract new LDA drinkers while also giving core beer fans the rich, diverse flavor experience they expect.

“Consumers are entering the beer category through flavor, and younger legal-age consumers are twice as likely to buy a flavored-alc beverage than other generations,” Colucci said.

While Simply Spiked has been a proven performer, it’s Molson Coors entry into the nascent refresher category that represents the most exciting innovation from the brand in years: Happy Thursday. A fruit-flavored, bubble-free, low-ABV beverage formulated for Gen Z drinkers, Happy Thursday feels completely new to both Molson Coors and the larger beer market. It’s not a hard seltzer, it’s not a soft drink line extension, it’s not a hard tea, and it’s definitely not a beer. It’s something entirely its own, and early indications suggest the brand is resonating with its target audience.

“We realized that if we wanted to find the future of flavor, we needed a brand inspired by the same people we want to buy it,” explained Liz Cramton, Marketing Director for Happy Thursday, when the brand launched in April. “What’s worked in the past doesn’t necessarily work for this younger generation of legal-age drinkers,” Cramton said. “Instead, we built our media plan around them.”

Gick credits the success of Molson Coors’ beyond beer portfolio to listening. Yes, they have centuries of beer-making and selling experience, but that doesn’t mean the brewery doesn’t have something to learn. They’ve created a customer insights team dedicated to listening to target consumers. And a newly-created Gen Z Culture Panel ensures they don’t lose touch with what these new shoppers want. Without those direct channels to LDA drinkers, Happy Thursday would not be the drink it is today.

“We wanted to hear from them about what they wanted, what they didn’t, and what they felt was missing from the market,” Gick says. “That’s how we landed on the name, the packaging, the zero-carbonation and the flavors.”

The Molson Coors of today barely resembles the company it was before the 2019 pivot. The beverage industry has transformed, and Molson Coors has changed thanks to the two-way communication that has helped get their products – both new and old – onto shelves and into the hands of the next generation.

Gick isn’t ignorant about the challenges that lie ahead of Molson Coors nor the existential threats that beer and RTDs are facing. But the company has systems in place to not only weather the headwinds, but to turn them into a propelling force.

 “For Molson Coors, it’s all about acceleration,” Gick says. “We have the right brands and plans in place. And with the industry’s best distributor network at our side, we’re focused on continuing our strong sales in 2024 and beyond.”

Introducing Happy Thursday

When Molson Coors’ market researchers noticed Gen Z drinkers on TikTok using whisks and milk frothers to remove carbonation from their drinks, the seed was planted for Happy Thursday. Unlike seltzers or flavored malt beverages, Happy Thursday is bubble-free and smooth from the first sip.

Happy Thursday is a major innovation for Molson Coors and the alcohol business, as the rising generation of drinkers migrate to new flavors and sensations. Meet the debut lineup of this paradigm-shifting refresher.

HAPPY THURSDAY STRAWBERRY

Strawberry is so often an auxiliary flavor in beverages, but Happy Thursday puts the punchy berry in the spotlight with this daiquiri-adjacent sipper. Lightly sweet and crisp, it’s like a cider made from a bushel of fresh strawberries. ABV: 4.4%


HAPPY THURSDAY PINEAPPLE STARFRUIT

Ripe and lush, Pineapple Starfruit is an island vacation in a can. If you’re a fan of Painkillers, Jungle Birds, or other tropical fare, this ready-to-go tiki drink will be one you want to keep in your fridge door for an instant getaway. ABV: 4.4%


HAPPY THURSDAY VARIETY PACK


The Happy Thursday Variety Pack includes four delicious Spiked Refreshers: Pineapple Starfruit, Black Cherry, Mango Passionfruit and Strawberry.

About the Author: Jerard Fagerberg is a freelance drinks writer and product manager based in Kittery, Maine. His name is not Jared, but lotsa folks get that wrong.

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